Degrees of hearing loss

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Hearing loss affects more people than you might think. About 15% of American adults, or 37.5 million people, report hearing difficulties. It can be caused by a variety of factors, including exposure to loud noises or infection, and it often progresses gradually.

Hearing loss can affect your work and your relationships. It is important to have your hearing checked regularly and to see a healthcare provider if you are having difficulty hearing or having your ears.

Although hearing loss can’t always be cured, there are treatments that can help you hear better. This article explains how hearing is measured, the different degrees of hearing loss and the treatments available.

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How hearing is measured


Hearing is measured in decibels (dB), or how loud a sound has to be for you to hear it. To assess your hearing, a healthcare professional (usually an audiologist) will determine the lowest decibel you can hear.

Decibel chart

An extremely loud noise like a gunshot can damage your hearing, as can continuous exposure to something like a power tool or motorcycle. For this reason, it’s helpful to consult a decibel chart, which breaks down the decibel levels of common everyday noises like ambulance sirens and dishwashers.

If you’re worried about exposing yourself to too much noise, ask your healthcare provider for advice on how to protect your hearing.

When a hearing aid is needed

Nearly 29 million American adults could benefit from wearing hearing aids, but fewer than one in three people over the age of 70 with hearing loss have ever worn one. If your hearing loss is mild to moderate and interferes with your life in any way, a hearing aid may be helpful.

For those with severe hearing loss, a hearing aid may not be effective and a cochlear implant may be required. An audiologist can assess your level of hearing loss to determine which type of device is best for you.

Levels of hearing loss

To determine the severity of your hearing loss, an audiologist will perform a hearing test. Your degree of hearing loss is rated based on how loud the sounds are for you to hear them. It is measured in decibels of hearing loss, or dB HL. Normal hearing has a dB HL range of minus 10 (-10) to 15.

Benign

Mild hearing loss is classified as having a dB HL range of 26 to 40. This level of hearing loss can make it difficult to hear conversations when there is a lot of background noise. It’s similar to what a person with normal hearing would feel if they put their fingers in their ears.

Moderate

Moderate hearing loss encompasses the dB HL range of 41 to 55. With this level of hearing loss, you may have trouble hearing certain consonant and vowel sounds when someone is speaking. In other words: you are able to hear, but you will have a hard time understanding everything.

Moderately severe

In moderately severe hearing loss, the dB HL range is 56 to 70. Without hearing aids, people with this level of hearing loss cannot hear speech. Even with hearing aids, speech can sometimes be difficult to hear and understand.

Strict

We speak of severe hearing loss when the dB HL is between 71 and 90. Without hearing aids or cochlear implants, a person with this level of hearing loss cannot hear speech.

Deep

Profound hearing loss encompasses any dB HL of 91 and above. Without hearing aids or cochlear implants, someone with this degree of hearing loss may not even be able to hear loud sounds like airplane engines or fire alarms.

Diagnostic

There are different tests that can be used to diagnose hearing loss. They are not painful and can provide much-needed information. These tests include:

  • Auditory Brainstem Response Test (ABR) or Auditory Brainstem Evoked Response Test (BAER), which checks the brain’s response to sound and can be performed during sleep.
  • Otoacoustic emissions (OAE), which measures the inner ear’s response to sound and can be performed during sleep.
  • Behavioral audiometric assessment, which tests the functioning of all parts of the ear and assesses how a person responds to sounds. During this test, the person is awake and actively responds to sounds.

Treatment

Treatment may be different for each person and depends on the cause and severity of the hearing loss as well as the person’s age. Treatment plans for anyone who is hard of hearing should include close monitoring, ongoing follow-ups, and modifying the treatment plan as needed over time.

For children and adolescents, early intervention and special education can help them get not only the services they need, but also the accommodations and educational modifications to which they are entitled under the law. Each state has an early hearing detection and intervention program that can help identify babies and children with hearing loss, as well as provide services and follow-ups as needed.

Assistive Technology Devices

Many people with hearing loss still have some ability to hear, called residual hearing. Assistive technology devices cannot reverse hearing loss, but they can help someone use their residual hearing to their best advantage. They understand:

  • Hearing aids
  • Cochlear or brainstem implants
  • Bone Anchored Hearing Aids
  • Other assistive devices such as captioning, portable sound amplifiers and audio loop systems

Medicine or Surgery

If hearing loss is due to chronic ear infections or fluid buildup in the middle ear, antibiotics or surgery to place a tube in the eardrum to drain it can help with hearing. Surgery may also be needed if parts of the ear aren’t working properly.

When to talk to your health care provider

Sometimes hearing loss happens so gradually that your loved ones notice it before you do. If you notice changes in your hearing, talk to your primary care provider first. They can do an exam to see if your symptoms are due to an infection, earwax buildup, or something else.

They can then refer you to a specialist for further examinations and/or hearing tests. If your hearing suddenly decreases, you should see a health care provider quickly because sudden hearing loss has the best chance of recovery when treated early.

If it’s been a while since you’ve had a hearing test, talk to your health care provider. There are no evidence-based guidelines for how often you should have your hearing checked, but many audiologists recommend that adults get screened every three years, starting at age 50 years old.

Summary

There are different degrees of hearing loss, from mild to profound. A hearing test can determine your degree of hearing loss by identifying the decibel level at which you can hear. Treatment may include surgery or the use of assistive technology devices such as hearing aids or cochlear implants.

A word from Verywell

It can be embarrassing to realize that you have trouble hearing, especially in social situations. You may also worry that if your hearing loss is permanent, you could eventually experience total hearing loss.

The good news is that there are many effective treatments, such as hearing aids, that can help protect the hearing you still have. The sooner you treat your hearing loss, the better your prognosis will be, so don’t hesitate to contact your health care provider.

Frequently Asked Questions


  • Is hearing loss considered a disability?

    Yes, hearing loss is considered a legal disability and people with hearing loss are protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). In order to get Social Security disability benefits, you must meet certain conditions. Having medical evidence and documents from your health care providers can help with this.


  • How do you know if hearing loss is permanent or temporary?

    The most common type of hearing loss, sensorineural hearing loss, is usually permanent. Conductive hearing loss, which is caused by a blockage such as a buildup of fluid or earwax or swelling due to infection, can sometimes be temporary. Without proper treatment, however, it can become permanent.

    Keep in mind that permanent hearing loss does not mean that you will completely lose your ability to hear. Many treatments are available to help protect and improve whatever hearing you still have.


  • How to read a hearing test?

    The graph of an audiogram has frequencies plotted horizontally across the top from left to right, going from bottom to top. The sound level in decibels is plotted vertically on the left, from very quiet sounds to very loud sounds. Your healthcare provider can show you how to read your audiogram and explain what the results mean in practical, everyday terms.

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